The whole point of music is to turn feelings into soundwaves, which is something Neil Finn does with unique accuracy. Unique for a Finn, at least. When his son Liam released a record in 2007, he made it clear that he had the talent too.
Liam first album, I’ll Be Lightning, followed his father’s template for thoughtful pop music, displaying the kind of enticing songwriting that made Crowded House so commercially successful. And so the world ended up with not just two musical Finns (Neil and his brother Tim) but three. And now Liam has teamed up with Neil to produce a collaborative album, Lightsleeper.
Released last week, Lightsleeper is a display of everything the father and son do best: rock ballads, trippy harmonies, percussion that thumps and loops and strings that reverberate to the point of psychedelia.
“I think we came at this as equals, as creative equals, and with an admiration for each other,” explains Liam, speaking over the phone from LA. “I feel like Dad knows my music as well as, if not better than anyone on this planet. And I feel the same way about his music.”
While the pair disagreed on each other’s choices on a semi-regular basis, they’d just talk it out quickly and honestly. “And of course we knew that we loved each other. That helps.”
The history of music is littered with young men whose rock ‘n’ roll rage is fueled by daddy issues, but that’s not an issue for Liam. No, the Finns are very comfortable with feelings, a fact that comes though repeatedly in our conversation. And the pair obviously have a deep mutual admiration.
“Liam has got enormous patience and endurance when it comes to soundscapes,” explains Neil. “The way to work with sound is so interesting to Liam that he’ll spend hours transferring the whole session onto cassette tapes and then bounce it back in order to get a certain degradation with a certain feeling. And I respect that. I would’ve said it was too time consuming and too difficult. I always just want to get the idea, the structure of the song figured out, and the phrasing of the lyrics figured out, and when that’s done I’m exhausted.”
It’s an interesting insight into into an album with a noticeably warm, cassette-like quality. There’s not a single dry, song on Lightsleeper. The opening track “Prelude - Island of Peace” is a collage of vocal harmonies, keys, and sweeping synths, all superimposed over tape hiss. It’s a prelude that sets the tone of the album—48 minutes of sweet instrumentation crushed with tape and envelope filters. The sound design is, obviously, Liam-led innovation; Neil hasn’t put anything this electronic-influenced on record since Split Enz.
Despite pushing the defining sounds of the record, Liam still learned a lot from (and about) his dad during recording.
“[I learned] He will never ever give up... in general,” Liam says of his dad, laughing. “There are always certain songs where you find yourself going around in circles, or you hit a brick wall, but I’ve never experienced such perseverance as I have watching Dad.”
Take, for example, “Troubles,” a vinyl-only Lightsleeper track. This song was written and recorded as a demo, only for Neil to go and rewrite and re-record the arrangement at least seven times. At one stage he even got Mick Fleetwood to play drums (via Neil’s appointment with Fleetwood Mac) but by that point it’d somehow lost whatever flair it had originally.
“And at a certain point I was like, I’ve got no objectivity, I can’t even tell anymore,” said Liam. “But then Dad went back to the demo and figured out what it was that we loved so much about the original.”
Then, after a few more reworkings, he presented it to Liam, who was dumbfounded.
“He’d done it. I’d probably have given up months earlier, so I realised he’s just an obsessive nutcase.”
This ability of Neil’s to re-write and re-work until perfection isn’t a result of miraculous genius, he says, but age.
“You know, when you’re young, you think that creativity just rolls out of you and you’re a genius,” he says. “You think you can take drugs and it’ll all be fine forever, but at some point it all goes horribly wrong and you realise you actually have to work hard and turn up everyday and make it your life’s work.”
That itself is the philosophy behind “Troubles”: that pain and troubles can be good for the soul, because they help to forge a “solid, robust and well-rounded person.” But he stresses that suffering doesn’t immediately equate to good art.
“I think there is some truth in the idea that pain can create good art, because pain ensures you’re really feeling it,” he explains, “But I think the key is to feel things deeply. And obviously you don’t want to go through a breakup every time you make a record, so I think it’s just about figuring out how to really feel things.”
This gets harder with age, he suggests, because routines get set and behaviours become automated, whereas youthful experimentation forces new experiences, which forces new feelings. He says this was one of the reasons he was keen to work on an album with Liam: because the stakes were naturally higher working with family.
“I think making a record with your family brings a certain intensity along with it, and the potential for drama, the potential for conflict is there, and that makes you feel it deeply, just because there’s years of pent-up emotion to draw off,” he elucidates. “I think that when you open yourself up to experiences, things come back to you and you’re able to push more creative things out, you know? It’s an equal exchange—the love you take is equal to the love you make, as Paul McCartney eloquently put it.”
Neil and Liam have now been working on Lightsleeper since 2015, which provides a lot of time for reflection, and a lot of time for re-working. At this point, three years on, they’ve gotten the record to a place they’re happy with.
“I really like it,” says Liam. “I don’t think I remember having a record come out where I felt less connected to what people think of it in terms of how good I felt about it.”
“I think we put everything we had into it,” Neil adds. “We really wanted to make it genuine. Like we wanted to make ourselves feel something. And I think we did. I think that’s really come through.”
At the end of the conversation I thank them and say goodbye, but I can’t figure out how to end the call on the conference phone. So I accidentally listen to them say goodbye to each other, thinking I’ve gone. It’s no longer Neil Finn, one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and Liam Finn, son of rock royalty. Neil just sounds like a regular dad who shares a hobby with his child, and I’m listening to them as they say goodbye. The interaction is mere seconds long, but it encapsulates the essence of what makes Lightsleeper so great: this record isn’t a regular collaboration, or just another album. It’s two generations writing their family history.
“You still there Dad?” Asks Liam.
“Yeah mate,” Neil replies. “I’ll speak to you soon.”
“Ok. Bye Dad.”
Julian Morgans is the editor of VICE Australia. Follow him on Twitter.